Grease saved swimmer's day

22:55, Feb 11 2013
Foveaux St crossing
Support crew: John van Leeuwen and his support crew at the Surf Life Saving Championships in Napier. Pictured, from left, Bill Davidson, Keith Wigg, John van Leeuwen, Ivan Wilson, Roger Burgess, John Fogarty and Johnny Allen. Front row, Tim Fenton, Peter Stewart and RowanLeck.
Foveaux Crossing
John van Leeuwen touches a rock on Stewart Island, 13 hours and 36 minutes after setting off from Bluff in 1963.
Foveaux crossing
John van Leeuwen being accompanied by John Fogarty during his swim from Bluff to Stewart Island in 1963.
Foveaux crossing
John van Leeuwen and his wife Ann at Oreti Beach, where the Oreti Surf Lifesaving club will celebrate 50 years since he conquered Foveaux Strait, swimming from Bluff to Stewart Island.

John van Leeuwen still remembers the blue bottles smothering his face, the engine grease being smeared all over his body and the cold waves hitting his pale skin.

He still remembers pushing off from the rocks at Bluff and more than 13 hours later seeing the shores of Stewart Island, close enough to touch.

It may have been half a century ago but the Mr van Leeuwen remembers it like it was yesterday.

John Van Leeuwen
All greased up and ready to commence his swim, John van Leeuwen sets off from the Three Sisters.

He recalls the gruelling 13 hours and 36 minutes he spent in the cold waters of Foveaux Strait, swimming from the mainland to an island only visible on the horizon and he remembers the cold waves hitting his face, as arm after arm, he swum to Stewart Island.

That was February 7, 1963, when he went down in the history books as the first person to swim the strait, and he lives to tell the tale.

And decades later his mammoth effort is being celebrated by Oreti Surf Life Saving Club, the club he belonged to when he completed his courageous attempt.


The 78-year-old was inspired to swim the notorious strait by Barrie Devenport , who was the first man to swim Cook Strait.

Only months after Devenport accomplished his feat, van Leeuwen decided he would take on the challenge of the rough seas of the Foveaux Strait.

He did not have a wetsuit, braving the cold seas armed with his goggles, swimsuit and the strength he had gained from the months of training.

His body lathered in grease to protect him from the cold conditions and with a support crew of friends, teammates and, most importantly, his girlfriend Ann, he set off in the hope of reaching Stewart Island.

He remembers the clusters of jellyfish, their tentacles sticking to his face and trying to swat them off. He finally resorted to using engine grease from the boat to keep the jellyfish at bay.

"That nearly finished me off."

While the last couple of hours of his swim were blurred by exhaustion, he credits his accomplishment to his girlfriend at the time. She swum the last section of the journey with him.

"She gave me a kick."

Now, 50 years on, his girlfriend has become his wife, and his adventure has become a story. He's just glad he's here to tell the tale.

Foveaux Strait swims: John van Leeuwen, February 7, 1963 (13hr 36min); Meda McKenzie, March 20, 1979 (14:00); Belinda Shields, March 24, 1984 (9:53); Michael Quinlivan, February 13, 1985 (9:41); Sandra Blewett, February 11, 1988 (12:5); Todd Utteridge, February 15, 1989 (8:40).

The Southland Times